The Romance of Music and Poetry


When Bob Dylan was awarded the Noble Prize for Literature there was, rather surprisingly, some debate about how we define ‘literature’ in the modern age. In reality, poetry and music have been intrinsically linked throughout the history of human culture. This is not going to be a vague generalisation of the idea of ‘art’, but of how the way that spoken word fits so perfectly into the sensory experience of ‘music’.

Now, consider the development from ink on a page to live performance. Poems can be sung, and rap is essentially a form of spoken word. At the far extreme, research has shown that when playing familiar music with only the instruments, our brains fill in and trick us into believing that we are hearing lyrics. We participate in the experience of creating music by adding the poetry.

Now really, I have to admit at this stage that I can’t fantasise about the brilliance of music and poetry with the quality of lyricism in current pop music. For starters, can a singer really express great emotion for a song they had little to no role in writing? They’re just sound-producers for someone else’s ingenuity. And to be honest, its quite difficult to defend pop music as ‘poetry’ when 90% of the words are ‘beat’ or ‘work’ or ‘party’…totally original thinking there, lads.

All is not lost, of course. We still have some amazing lyricists in popular culture; Freddie Mercury (I know he’s lost but he will never lose his popularity...), Ed Sheeran, Alex Turner and Adele. I’ve even been duly informed that heavy metal lyrics can be soulful. A really interesting video recently came out on the YouTube channel ‘Great Big Story’ that brought to light the determination of 16-year-old Renata Flores in reviving the Incan language of ‘Quechua’ through music. Rather than allowing this traditional Peruvian language to sink into irrelevancy, she translates songs by the likes of Michael Jackson and Alicia Keys, combining songs we recognise with a language rooted in her heritage. Pop music, it seems, can be essential for preserving language. I wonder if, in a century’s time, people will be reviving what ‘English’ accents and slang really sounded like by playing some Amy Winehouse or Kaiser Chiefs? Or maybe they’ll enter the English Literature curriculum? One can only hope.

All of us will remember torturously learning about Shakespeare’s use of iambic pentameter, which of course constituted to his genius, (yes, trust me on this), but actually it's important for us to realise how this metre reflects how we, as humans, naturally speak in rhythms. We produce music through various collections of sounds and intonations. If getting really sentimental, there is no such thing as speech, as we sing what we think.

That’s perhaps going a tad too deep into this, but the idea is still valid. Poets write with specific line or stanza lengths, they place the words specifically so that it flows off the tongue and settles in the ear. If that metaphor wasn’t sickly enough, think also of how themes of love and emotions are intensified through the pairing of idea (the word) and impact (the music). The best lyricists, I’m sure you’ll have to agree, are essentially great poets.